US unions look to election for resurgence

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CHICAGO, Sep 27 (Reuters) US unions, taking lessons and tactics learned from the effort to arrest organized labor's long decline, say next year's presidential election will be crucial to their resurgence.

''You have more ground-level, grass-roots excitement about this election -- this is our election,'' said Greg Denier of the Change to Win coalition, which is composed of seven unions representing 6 million workers.

Denier said union polls showed most Americans wanted their government to redress the balance toward workers hurt by spiraling health-care costs and the outsourcing of work by ''abusive'' corporations.

Despite the overall decline in union membership, some American unions led by the fast-growing Service Employees International Union have expanded by targeting entire industries, instead of individual employers, and by focusing on sectors where the jobs cannot move, such as janitors, health-care workers and retail workers.

Similarly, unions have tapped into technology that will help them get their members to the polls and identifies receptive voters by learning what magazines they subscribe to and other data.

''We are investing in cell phone technology, texting, making greater and expanded use of the Internet, we're building our e-mail base, we're building or local number base. We're trying to add on to the more traditional ways of contacting members,'' said Don Kaniewski, the political director for the 499,000-member Laborers' International Union of North America.

''They are more sophisticated how they mobilize their members (and) how they ... organize their support for candidates. Candidates understand that unions are a pretty valuable asset,'' said labor expert Fred Feinstein of the University of Maryland.

SEEKING TO REVERSE DOWNTURN For unions, having a Democrat in the presidency and a Democratic-controlled Congress could lead to a drastic shift in how unions recruit new members.

Union representation as a proportion of the total US workforce has shrunk steadily to 12 per cent in 2006 from about 20 per cent in 1983. Last year, 15.4 million workers were unionized, 326,000 fewer than in 2005.

Only 7 per cent of US workers in the private sector belong to unions, although several surveys show tens of millions of wage earners favor collective bargaining and would join a union if they could. By contrast, one-third of workers in Canada belong to unions and union density is even higher in much of Europe.

The Employee Free Choice Act, which labor experts said could be one of the first laws passed if Democrats dominate the election, allows a union to organize a company by getting a majority of employees to sign a union card, avoiding the secret-ballot elections where organizing efforts are often thwarted by employers.

The bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives in March but got no further, also calls for an arbitrator to step in if no contract is reached with a new union within 120 days. Currently, about half of newly unionized workers fail to gain a contract agreement.

If the law passes, ''there is every reason to believe union density would go up another 10 to 15 per cent,'' labor expert Robert Bruno of the University of Illinois at Chicago said.

That would be near the 1950s-era peak when one-third of US workers were unionized.

Bill Adams, a labor consultant who helps employers battle unions, said the law would have ''a geometric effect on organizing'' and warned of inflationary labor contracts.

Top Democratic presidential contenders pledged their support for the proposed law in speeches to union conventions this month in Chicago, vying for coveted endorsements that can bring millions of votes, volunteers and campaign dollars.

Union members tend to turn out to vote in greater numbers than others in similar demographics, although some fail to honor their unions' endorsements.

In 2004, the campaigns of union-endorsed Democratic candidates Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean fizzled quickly. In the upcoming presidential contest, Denier said the unions may delay, or even skip, endorsements.

''To be honest, this time around, people feel you have three really good candidates,'' he said, referring to New York Sen.

Hillary Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

REUTERS SS RN1802

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